In a year filled with uncertainty, Justin Jefferson has become a constant for the Minnesota Vikings. On Sunday, Jefferson became the fifth player in NFL history to record 1,000 receiving yards in his first 12 games. Only Randy Moss (1998), Anquan Boldin (2003), Marques Colston (2006) and Odell Beckham Jr. (2014) have accomplished the same feat.
While all of those players had unique ways of reaching the milestone, it’s natural to want to see how Jefferson compares to those players. Moss is an easy comparison. As the only other receiver in franchise history to record a 1,000-yard season as a rookie, Moss broke the system and changed the way teams defended the pass, but it isn’t quite what Jefferson has done this season.
Instead, Jefferson’s rise to superstardom has looked a lot like Boldin, who broke in with the Arizona Cardinals in 2003.
Stepping into a “scorched earth” scenario, Boldin wasn’t even the first receiver Arizona selected in that year’s draft class. A converted quarterback from Florida State, Boldin had a crash course in playing receiver but quickly turned into one of the most dominant targets in the NFL.
Playing in an offense that included Marcel Shipp and the corpse of Emmitt Smith to “take attention away from him,” Boldin immediately became options A-through-Z for the Cardinals offense. In his first career game, Boldin hung 217 yards and two touchdowns on the Detroit Lions and became a pillar of consistency.
Boldin posted five or more catches 12 times during his rookie year and was held under 50 yards just three times. With nobody else around, Boldin was used in every way imaginable both as a possession receiver and as a deep threat. This helped lead him to the most receiving yards ever by a rookie with 1,377.
Consider that, much like Boldin, Jefferson got a crash course playing receiver, but his took place during his time at LSU.
In a league that is locked into specialization and putting players where they succeed, Jefferson played all over during his career with the Tigers. After finding success on the outside during his sophomore year, Jefferson exploded when Joe Brady decided to move him into the slot for his junior season.
Being paired with Joe Burrow certainly didn’t hurt, but Jefferson went on to have one of the best seasons by a receiver in NCAA history with 111 catches, 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns.
That path from being a zero-star recruit to first-round draft pick helped fuel Jefferson when he got into the NFL. With experience at all positions, Jefferson’s learning curve was small even after working behind Bisi Johnson for the first two weeks of the season. Once he hit the field, the Vikings have looked to use him as much as possible.
Jefferson’s usage has been on par with Boldin’s despite being featured in an offense that has more weapons than the 2003 Cardinals did. Throwing out his part-time role in the first two weeks, Jefferson has recorded 60 or more yards in eight of his 10 career starts. This is even more impressive when you consider Jefferson has received five or fewer targets in five of those games.
A lot of this is because Jefferson is being used in the same way that Stefon Diggs wanted to be during his last season in Minnesota. While Diggs was primarily asked to run deep routes, Jefferson has won all over the field. On Sunday, Jefferson torched Luq Barcoo with a deep route that helped lead to a touchdown, but he also found the end zone on a short route against the Carolina Panthers in Week 12.
Even more impressive are the routes that Jefferson is running when he’s not getting the ball. That makes Next Gen Stats’ route mapping of Jefferson’s performance against the Panthers look like something a child would draw on a living room wall and creates unpredictability for opposing defenses.
This type of usage is different than what we saw from other receivers who have crossed the 1,000-yard threshold in 12 games. While Moss’s rookie season will likely remain No. 1 in Vikings history, at least when it comes to fan sentiment, his money was made by running as fast as he could downfield and betting his quarterback could throw it far enough to connect. That happened a lot in 1998, and the Vikings rode that all the way to the NFC Championship Game.
Colston also had an instant impact for a Saints team that was rebuilding after multiple decades of bad football, but he spent nearly half of his routes in the slot. Jefferson has had to win in all areas of the field, which has made him a better overall receiver.
Even Beckham was in a similar situation, but there are key differences. While Beckham was used in a similar fashion, he missed the first five weeks of the season before cramming his entire explosive rookie season into 12 games. He was as consistent as Jefferson but came in a smaller sample size.
Jefferson appears to be the most similar to the guy he’ll be chasing for the rookie receiving title. With Jefferson’s role becoming more necessary in the Vikings’ offense, there’s a chance that Jefferson, who is 338 yards away from Boldin’s record with four games to go, could be on his way to making history while doing one thing that Boldin couldn’t: Leading the Vikings into the playoffs.